Arts & Culture

The Power and Potency of Local Cultural Engagement

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In a previous post I discussed how God’s mission for each of us is wherever he has put us, not necessarily on the other side of the world. Today I would like to consider this idea in the context of cultural engagement.

As we saw in our discussion of James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, it is said that the only way to impact culture is to influence it through elite institutions such as Ivy League universities, national newspapers like the New York Times, or major Hollywood studios.

While there is good work to be done in and through such institutions, most of us will never find ourselves in a position to exert that kind of influence. But, what we do in our local spheres of influence is not meaningless just because the effects are smaller in scale.

This idea of local cultural engagement is well developed in two books I have mentioned before— Andy Crouch’s Culture Making and Greg Forster’s Joy for the World—and they both treat the issue from a unique angle.

Local Cultural Engagement in ‘Culture Making’

The vision of cultural engagement presented in each book is captured by a key phrase or idea. Crouch’s Culture Making centers on the idea that “the only way to change culture is to create more of it” [emphasis in original].

How does one “create culture”? As Crouch explains it, culture changes when we create what he calls cultural goods:

Culture, in the abstract, always and only comes from particular human acts of cultivation and creativity. We don’t make Culture, we make omelets. We tell stories. We build hospitals. We pass laws.

Cultural goods are not limited to products of the fine arts such as music, film, art, and architecture. A programmer’s piece of code can be a cultural good. So can the hardware born of an engineer’s careful calculations, or a teacher’s lesson plan. They all, to borrow Crouch’s language, make something of the world and are known to a public of some size.

Why should we create cultural goods? To change the world? Yes, says Crouch, but only if we understand what we typically mean by that expression:

This is what we usually mean when we talk loosely about changing the world: we are referring to cultural goods that have changed our world—that have shaped the horizons for a smaller but not inconsiderable subset of humanity that happens to include us. “Change the world” becomes shorthand for “change the culture at a particular time and place” [emphasis in original].

Like Hunter, Crouch suggests we lower our ambitious gaze from the world—meaning the entire globe—and concentrate on the world around us, the people with whom we actually interact. It is there that “we will have the greatest cultural effect…where we have already cultivated a community that recognizes our ability to contribute something new.”

Greg Forster also encourages us to influence culture by making the most of our surroundings in Joy for the World.

Local Cultural Engagement in ‘Joy for the World’

Like Crouch, Forster has much to say about cultural engagement, but his focal point is the joy of God. This joy is not an emotion, but

The state of flourishing in mind, heart, and life that Christians experience by the Holy Spirit….The joy of God is all the fruits of the Spirit [emphasis in original].

Forster’s thesis is that when this joy is manifest in our lives, people who don’t have it will be drawn to it and want to realize it for themselves.

Because the joy of God attracts even those who do not possess it, it has the power to…yes, change the world, in the more realistic and limited sense described above.

A family, workplace, or community with Christians in it will be different from one without them. The more Christians there are, and the more those Christians think and act intentionally to live out their faith in those families, workplaces, and communities, the more different those institutions will be.

Forster’s use of the word “institutions” does not refer to the elite institutions of mass cultural influence Hunter mentions. Forster is not saying ordinary individuals can influence culture on a national or global scale, but that we have some power to exert nonetheless:

As an individual, I may not have an extensive range of influence. But that, too, cuts both ways. However small my range of influence is, I do have some range of influence. Within that range I do have the power to create change. I may not be able to impact company policy where I work, but I can change how the coworkers immediately around me experience daily life on the job. I can be the person who goes out of his way to help my coworkers and always prioritizes excellent service to the customer. I may not be able to change the laws of my town, but I can change the social dynamic of my neighborhood. I can organize get-togethers and be intentional about creating a sense of community. That’s cultural change.

As these examples show, anyone can influence culture, as long as we do not understand “influencing culture” to mean having a global impact.

Make no mistake, though: local change is still meaningful change. It’s the kind of change ordinary people have the power to bring about, no matter where they find themselves.

The work of cultural engagement we are called to is right in front of us. There is a place for people to work their influence through elite institutions, but for most of us it is not our place.

There is no loss in that either, for the small endeavors that we are always free to take on for Christ’s sake are as real and potent as anything can be.

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